Shining Up the Police Badge

Few jobs are more important than that of police officer. Law- enforcement careers have traditionally offered a strong sense of public service, as well as stable employment and good benefits. Recruitment used to be no problem.

That has changed in the past year or two. Many urban police departments report difficulty in finding new officers. Some fast-growing sun-belt suburbs are also having trouble filling the ranks. The causes range from ample job opportunities elsewhere to rising retirement rates to less-than-alluring pay. Starting salaries are often below $30,000.

But one oft-stated reason for a fall-off in police recruits is particularly disturbing: sagging police morale.

Law enforcement work has become undervalued by the public. In fact, it's a target of frequent public criticism. That's ironic, in view of dropping crime rates. These negative perceptions need some sorting out.

Much of the criticism springs from incidents of police brutality, which batter the profession as well as the victim. Recent years have brought their share of blatant examples, from the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles a decade ago to the Abner Louima case in New York City. But these incidents have sparked investigations and reforms, which should improve police departments.

While frictions between the police and black and Hispanic communities remain high in many cities, reform-minded urban departments are learning to cultivate better ties to neighborhoods. This is critical, not least because departments need to recruit officers from just such communities.

One other factor: As they try to strengthen themselves and root out corruption and brutality, police departments have toughened hiring standards.

Often, more education is required, and personal backgrounds and temperaments are more carefully scrutinized. Maybe that reduces the pool of applicants a bit, but it should also help attract better prospects.

Cities need to look hard at issues like competitive salaries. But most of all, recruitment efforts need to counter negative images of police work - not least those conveyed through film or TV - and emphasize the profession's inherent worth as a guardian of safety for all.

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